30 March 2008

A Sassanian Origin for the Game of Chess?

Guest Blogging

It's Zenobia’s great pleasure to welcome Jan Newton (left). She's guest blogging today to tell us about the much-disputed origins of the game of chess. As a consequence of my writing about 'Sassanian Stuff', I learnt that some scholars believe that the ancient Persians (and not the north Indians) had invented the game. Jan and I corresponded for a time and she was kind enough to agree to write a guest blog on this subject.

Jan has always been interested in archaeology and history, earning a degree in history as part of her undergraduate double-major. A 1988 best-selling novel written by Katherine Neville, "The Eight", a story involving an ancient chess set allegedly possessed of mystical powers and said to have been owned by Charlemagne, had a profound impact on her life. In 1998, Jan discovered a small Internet discussion group exploring the question - "Is chess is the game of the goddess?" and joined the discussion by posting about Neville's novel. Ever since she has been researching and learning more about the origins of chess and other board games.

Jan is one of the principals of the blog Chess, Goddess and Everything, reporting on the latest news about women's chess, publishing articles and original research on the origins of chess and chess history, as well as stories, art and poetry about chess and other ancient board games. She is also a founder member of GoddessChess, ‘an inquiry into the treasury of chess, the goddess and everything!’ For the past two years GoddessChess has funded a special prize for the best game at the U.S. Women's Chess Championship. Check out her blogs!


The Origins of Chess – A Few Things I’ve Thought About
by Jan Newton

When was chess invented? A few legends point to one person inventing the game in a short period of time -- sometimes just a night -- either as a way to explain to a grieving mother how one of her beloved sons was killed by his brother in a civil war (circa 3rd century CE) or as a method of teaching discipline to a wayward prince (circa 600 BCE). The most popular line of thought is that chess was invented in “Hind” in the 6th century CE (today, “Hind” is called “Baluchistan” and encompasses the tribal borderlands between western Pakistan and eastern Iran). This was the conclusion reached by H.J.R. Murray in A History of Chess published in 1919. Murray’s book is a sort of “holy grail” of chess lore, and is still relied upon by researchers as the primary source. According to Murray chess was derived from an Indian game called chaturanga, played upon an 8x8 square board called an ashtapada.

Chaturanga was also the term for the ancient Indian army which consisted of “four parts”: the infantry (foot soldiers), chariots, cavalry, and elephants – thus ascribing to chess a military origin.

It is popularly believed that after its invention in northern India, chess was introduced into Persia in the mid-6th century CE, from there spreading eastward to China (along the Silk Road) and, after the Islamic Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century CE, spread by the Arabs and trade routes slowly over the ensuing centuries to the rest of Europe, eastern Africa, Scandinavia and Russia.

Chess historians rely upon two written sources – both Persian – to ascribe the importation of chess from India to Persia (Persian chatrang) during the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531-578 CE): the Chatrang-namak (ca. 650 CE) and the Shahnameh or “Book of Kings,” a history written by Ferdousi in the 10th century CE.

A True Story?

The story conveyed in the Chatrang-namak is that one “Dewasarm, great ruler of India” sent a jeweled chess set along with many other luxurious and coveted items in a large caravan to the court of Khosrow I -- and presented a wager to the Shah: if the Shah’s wise men could determine the rules of the chess game within a certain period of time, then all the wealth of the caravan would become the property of the Shah; but if they could not determine the rules of the game, then everything would be returned to Dewasarm along with double the tribute from the Shah!

One of the Shah’s wise men worked out the rules of the game over one night after the rest of the Shah’s sages had failed, thus savings face for the Shah (not to mention an awful lot of money).

[The Shah's wise man (turbaned figure to right of chessboard) explains how chess is played before the Shah and the Ambassador from Hind]
To do one better, the wise man also invented a game called nard, an ancestor of backgammon, which was then shipped back to the King of India with a similar wager -- which he lost, his wise men being unable to come up with the correct rules of the game.

That's the story, but ...

But is it really true that chess was invented in “Hind” in the 6th century CE? It is, for instance, absolute nonsense that nard was invented in Persia the 6th century CE. That game was already well documented by the early 3rd century CE when it was being played in China, probably carried there by traders along the Silk Road -- and its history as a popular board game dates back to before the Roman Empire; some historians trace it all the way back to ancient Egypt. How much more of the account of the transmission of chess from India to Persia is equal nonsense? It could be just as likely that chess travelled from Persia to India, not the other way around!

Some years ago chess historian Ricardo Calvo wrote a short piece discussing some reasons why he believed it was possible that the game chatrang had been invented first by the Persians and not by the Indians.
[Earliest known “figural” chess pieces from Afrasiab, near Samarkand (today in Uzbekistan)]
In Pahlavi (middle Persian), chatrang not only means the game of chess, it is also the word for the mandrake plant (Latin mandragoras), so named because of the "man-like" shape of its root. Calvo postulated that the name of the game was taken from the "figure" of the mandrake root that looked like a man -- and thus meant something like “figure game,” figures made in the image of man. He also pointed out that the earliest artifacts incontestably accepted as chess pieces by chess historians – figures of men (and animals) – were excavated in Afrasiab, which was then a Persian-speaking province. The Afrasiab ivory pieces date to around 760CE (although Louis Cazaux dates them earlier, to 712 CE or prior, based upon a coin of that date being found in the same excavation level).

Face to Face

My etymological research indicates that in addition to being the mandrake plant, the Pahlavi word chatrang can be translated as face to face (and there is no similar etymology of chaturanga in Sanskrit). “Face to face” aptly describes two aspects of playing chatrang -- the players sitting across the board from each other, and the pieces moving toward each other face to face. “Face to face” also reflects a close confrontation, one aspect of which is reflected in the Persian tradition of the king's champion (shah ruhkh).

During the Sassanid period in Persia, the shah ruhkh would go out to meet an opposing army's champion in single hand-to-hand combat. The winner of the one-on-one battle determined the winning army.*

Under the rules of chatrang, the ruhkh – the chariot piece - was the strongest piece on the board and remained so until the rules of the game were modernized in the late 1400’s or early 1500’s CE (when the Queen piece in Europe – the old farzin (Vizier) piece in chatrang that stood next to the Shah/King -- gained its sweeping moves, with which we are familiar today. Prior to that time, the farzin could only move one piece in a diagonal direction). The ruhkh piece had the move of the modern “rook” piece – it could move an unlimited number of squares along any vertical or horizontal path, stopping only when it encountered another piece.

Another etymological clue linking chess first to Persia is in the word for chariot. The Middle Persian word rah or ruh meant chariot, and in Avestan (a closely-affiliated language), the word for chariot was ra fa. As we’ve seen, the Pahlavi word ruhkh meant warrior or champion in the sense of the king's champion (shah ruhkh), so the shah ruhkh was a charioteer. Ruhkh, "warrior, champion" could have been transmitted to the Indians either via the Avestan word ra fa, becoming translated as ratha (chariot) in India or through the Pahlavi rah/ruh. According to the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, one of the meanings of ratha is "a warrior, hero, champion". It seems reasonable to deduce that the Persian rah/ruh, Ruhkh and the Avestan ra fa became ratha in Sanskrit: a two-wheeled war chariot and/or a warrior, hero, champion – who drove the chariot.

Another important piece in the game of chatrang was the elephant (today’s bishop). The Pahlavi word for elephant is pil, the same as in modern-day Persian, and that is what the Sassinid Persians called the elephant piece in chatrang. In his A History of Chess Murray says "Pil, later Arabicized as fil, means elephant. It is not, however, a native Persian word, nor is it Sanskrit. The Persians may have borrowed the word from a language that was spoken by some tribe situated between Persia and India. The elephant, it was said, was not a native Persian animal.

It’s not exactly true that the elephant was not a native Persian animal. There were small pockets of western Asian elephants in Iraq and Syria that survived into historical times, the remnants of much larger herds that had once roamed the Persian plateau and environs for several thousands of years during a much warmer, wetter period. The ancient Babylonians called elephants something like p^ru or pe@ru. The remnants of these western herds were hunted to extinction sometime in the 11th century BCE. Accounts survive of some Egyptian pharaohs and other rulers of the middle east hunting elephants in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and in ancient Syria.

According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, Old Persian p^ru- (attested only in the meaning "ivory"), became Middle and New Persian p^l, Sogdian py’, K¨úa@rizmian pyz. Thus, the word is probably a loan word from the Babylonians.

Setting aside the intriguing idea that the use of an elephant piece in chatrang could very well date back to this period of history (11th century BCE and earlier), the use of elephants in Indian armies had in any case been obsolete after the 1st century CE. Why would anyone in the 6th century CE -- the date generally given for the invention of chess in India -- invent a “modern war game” that used equipment that was already long obsolete at the time?

Further, if the game of chatrang was adopted from the Hindustan game chaturanga, as Murray asserts, why wasn’t the elephant piece in the Persian game (pil) called after an Indian elephant piece in Sanskrit (hasti [hasty] or gaja)? By way of comparison, when the Arabs adopted the game of chatrang from Persia in the 7th century CE, they called it hatranj after Persian chatrang) -- and they called their elephant pieces fil (after Persian pil); the Persian chariot ruhkh became the Arabic rukh and the Persian Farzin became Ferz


The Question Remains Open.

[left: Atousa Pourkashian, who is now 18; she took the gold medal under-12 at the 2000 World Chess Competitions held in Spain]. The Persian tradition remains in good hands.

* Remember in Sassanian Stuff II, at Battle of Hormizdgan, where Ardashir won a decisive victory over the last Parthian king, who was killed: his death was reported to be a result of hand-to-hand single combat between the two kings -- while their troops looked on.

24 March 2008

The Other Zenobia

Treachery in Armenia and the Musical Drama of Johann Adolf Hasse! (Updated)

Rhadamistes was the son of King Parsman I of Iberia (in the Caucasus, modern eastern Georgia) who ruled from ca. 35 to 58 AD. He was known from one mountain peak to another for his ambition and arrogance -- as well as for fine manly looks and courage. As the Roman historian Tacitus put it, the young prince was

tall and handsome, of singular bodily strength, trained in all the accomplishments of his countrymen and highly renowned among his [peers].

What more could you want in a son?

Loyalty, maybe.

The king had good reason to fear that his son was conspiring against him so, to keep himself safe in his old age, he persuaded the prince to seek the throne of Armenia instead. The only problem was that King Mithridates of Armenia (r. 35-51 AD) was Parsman's own brother -- as well as Rhadamistes' father-in-law. In fact, when Parsman had driven the Parthians out of Armenia in 35 AD, he himself had granted the Armenian crown to Mithridates. Duly grateful, his brother had, in turn, given his daughter Zenobia as wife to Rhadamistes. So the now expendable Mithridates was both uncle and father-in-law to his future usurper.

The plot thickens.

Open violence, said the prudent old king, must be deferred, the better to catch his brother unawares. So Rhadamistes pretended to feud with his father because of his stepmother's hatred for him [there's always a wicked stepmother handy to keep stories like this moving along], and went to take refuge with his uncle. Did Zenobia flee with him to her father's embrace? The story doesn't say. But Mithridates welcomed Rhadamistes like a son, we are told, and loaded him with honours, a generosity reciprocated by his son-in-law's plotting with the Armenian nobles against the king.

While this was going on, King Parsman was off fighting with the king of the Albanians and appealing to the Romans for aid. Apparently, he was in trouble. And why? His brother, he said, had opposed him, and had 'done him wrong' in some undefined way. With that as his pretext, he recalled his son and gave him a large army to lead against Armenia. The prince swooped down on his unsuspecting uncle, drove him from power, and forced him to flee into the fortress of Gorneas near the Armenian-Syrian border,* which held a sizeable Roman garrison.

Rhadamistes besieged the fort. Whether the blame goes to the camp-commander or his centurion, one of them or both was bribed. Consequently, the Romans threatened to abandon the fort entirely unless their unwanted guest agreed to surrender to his nephew.

And Tacitus, who tells us all this, keeps a straight face when he says, "the perfidy of the Armenians was notorious."

More silver changed hands. Mithridates had to be content with vague promises of 'bloodless negotiations' from Rhadamistes. He had no choice but to leave the fortress and meet his errant nephew in person.
Rhadamistes at first threw himself into his embraces, feigning respect and calling him father-in-law and parent. He swore an oath too that he would do him no violence either by the sword or by poison. At the same time he drew him into a neighbouring grove, where he assured him that the appointed sacrifice was prepared for the confirmation of peace in the presence of the gods. It is a custom of these princes, whenever they join alliance, to unite their right hands and bind together the thumbs in a tight knot; then, when the blood has flowed into the extremities, they let it escape by a slight puncture and suck it in turn.
Instead of sucking blood, Mithridates was knocked to the ground and put in chains. The now ex-king and his wife were then smothered 'under a mass of heavy clothes' -- since Rhadamistes had sworn not to use swords or poison; clearly, he was a stickler for good form. To round out a perfect day, Even the sons of Mithridates were butchered for having shed tears over their parent's murder.

Thicker and Thicker

Rhadamistes becomes King of Armenia. But the Roman governor of Cappadocia now invades the country -- apparently planning to recover it from the murderous usurper. Instead, his troops ravage Roman allies not enemies, and he ends up in Rhadamistes' pocket :
whose gifts so completely overcame him that he positively encouraged him to assume the ensigns of royalty, and himself assisted at the [coronation] ceremony, authorizing and abetting....
This brings the Roman governor of Syria with his legions into the fray; but they are recalled to Syria so as not to provoke a war with Parthia. Not to be outdone, the Parthian king joins the 'Great Game' anyway: Armenia had been a Parthian possession before King Parsman threw them out, so he invades (53 AD), chases Rhadamistes from his barely warm throne, and puts his own brother Tiridates in his place. Now it's winter up in the mountains and the cold or an epidemic forces the Parthians to withdraw from Armenia, allowing Rhadamistes to come back and punish people as traitors; but they soon rise again in revolt and and gather around the palace in arms, calling on Tiridates to return (55 AD).

Where was Zenobia while all this was going on?

We haven't a clue. But now, finally, she comes back into the story. Tacitus relates an uncharacteristically romantic tale:

Rhadamistes had no means of escape but in the swiftness of the horses which bore him and his wife [Zenobia] away. Pregnant as she was, she endured, somehow or other, out of fear of the enemy and love of her husband, the first part of the flight, but after a while, when she felt herself shaken by its continuous speed, she implored to be rescued by an honourable death from the shame of captivity.

He at first embraced, cheered, and encouraged
her, now admiring her heroism, now filled with a sickening apprehension at the idea of her being left to any man's mercy. Finally, urged by the intensity of his love and familiarity with dreadful deeds, he unsheathed his sword, and having stabbed her, dragged her to the bank of the Araxes [River] and committed her to the stream, so that her very body might be swept away.

Then in headlong flight he hurried to Iberia, his ancestral kingdom.

In this treacherous and precarious world, the only loadstar is survival. His father quite reasonably wasted no time in executing his prodigal son, who was presumably still avid for royal power. Armenia was re-taken by the Parthians. Tiridates got his crown back, to become the founder of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty in Armenia.**

But we're not finished with Zenobia yet! The best part is still to come.

Zenobia meanwhile (this was her name), as she yet breathed and showed signs of life on the calm water at the river's edge, was perceived by some shepherds, who inferring from her noble appearance that she was no base-born woman, bound up her wound and applied to it their rustic remedies. As soon as they knew her name and her adventure, they conveyed her to the city of Artaxata, whence she was conducted at the public charge to Tiridates, who received her kindly and treated her as a royal person.

Enter Johann Adolf Hasse

"Let music be clear, simple, but sublime."

No other composer enjoyed as unanimously high a reputation across Europe during his lifetime as Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Hasse was maestro di cappella at the Polish-Saxon courts of Augustus II the Strong and Augustus III for 33 years and was known from one end of Europe to another as the divine Saxon (divino Sassone). He was given this honourable title by the highly demanding 18th century Italian music lovers for his supreme command of the Italian operatic idiom. It was Italian opera -- more precisely, dramma per musica -- which was the European genre at the time -- and the yardstick against which all composing skills were measured.

He wrote 63 operas, one of which is Zenobia, loosely based on the story preserved by Tacitus, but more attuned to 18th century taste: his heroine is a veritable apotheosis of marital love and fidelity. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio, the Imperial Poet, was written in 1737 and the first opera of that title (with music by Giovanni Bononcini) premiered in Vienna in the same year. In the remaining decades of the 18th century, at least 20 other composers made use of Metastasio's text. Hasse himself began work on the score of Zenobia in 1761. What made this libretto so popular?

His Zenobia is a woman of super-human character, a paragon of female virtues -- and a lesson to us all. In the opera, she is in love with Tiridates! but her father obliges her to marry Rhadamistes. When his father, Parsman, murders her father, Mithridates, suspicion for the deed falls on Rhadamistes ...who has to run for his life along with Zenobia to avoid being killed by the Armenians. Then follows the stabbing by the riverside. Tacitus stops at this point but Metastasio is just getting started. Zenobia's subsequent adventures make a bedroom farce look true to life. Yet, whatever the extreme situation, she never hesitates. She puts obedience to her father (even if he behaves soullessly and deceitfully to her) and loyalty to her husband (notwithstanding the cruel man's readiness to kill her) above her great and reciprocated love to the truly noble Tiridates. Yet it all ends happily, or at least high-mindedly.

Hasse's Zenobia had its premiere on 7 October 1761 at the Warsaw Opera House to grace the birthday of Augustus III. It enjoyed a run of 17 performances, yet was one of Hasse's few operas which had no revivals in other theatres. Until, that is, 30 June 1997, when it was performed in the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. The exquisite CD of that concert is available on the Pro Musica Camerata website. Zenobia is Olga Pasiechnyk, whose voice you hear on the recording above.

And, by the way, Johann Adolf Hasse was born on 23 or 24 March and baptized on 25 March 1699. So I'll take a middle date and wish him Happy Birthday today -- and many, many happy revivals.

Update 27 June 2008: A little-known pen and brown ink drawing of The Finding of Queen Zenobia on the Bank of the River Araxes by one of the rarest artists of the 17th C, Nicholas Poussin, will be auctioned at Sotheby's sale of Old Master Drawings in London on 9 July 2008.

As Poussin’s drawings rarely appear at auction, the emergence of this important, double-sided sheet, which has been in the possession of the same American family for more than half a century is of great significance. One side of the drawing is a very rapid pen study for a composition showing the finding of the queen, while on the other side there are various partial studies of figures – a type of drawing that is hardly ever seen in Poussin’s oeuvre.

Six drawings of 'The Other Zenobia' by Poussin are in various museums (none other is thought to remain in private hands). The composition of the present drawing is very different from that of the Hermitage painting (reproduced, above, in this post) and from the other drawings -- except for one in the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf -- in that a non-canonical group of horsemen has replaced the shepherds surrounding the body of Queen Zenobia. This may well be Poussin's own late reworking of the Tacitus story, given that the Düsseldorf drawing is latest in the series, ca. 1649-50; for stylistic reasons as well, that must also be very close to the date of the drawing which is to be sold.

Two painted versions of The Rescue of Queen Zenobia have been attributed to Poussin: one is lost -- and, anyway, now thought to be by Charles Dufresnoy [1611- 1668] -- while the other, in the Hermitage, is accepted as by Poussin.

Sotheby's estimate for the double-sided drawing is £70,000-90,000.

* Remember that Armenia at this time was larger and more to the south than Armenia today. See it on this map

** This is the same Tiridates whom we saw at Nero's court in 66 AD in our post on The Magi and Christmas.

The paintings are (1) Rhadamisto uccide Zenobia, by Luigi Sabatelli, (2) Queen Zenobia Found On the Banks of the Arax, by Nicholas Poussin , (3) Zenobia Retrouvee by Paul Baudry.

Update: 2 August 2008

As part of Prague's summer celebration of Old Music, the Wrocławska Orkiestra Barokowa (conducted by Jarosław Thiel) will perform arias from Johann Adolf Hasse's opera, Zenobia.

In the summer refrectory of the 800 year old Strahov Monastery (left) on Friday, 8 August 2008 at 20:00.

Not to be missed if you are in or near Prague!

18 March 2008

Siamese are True Snobs, Persians not

Finally, a little cat blogging.

Domestic cats around the world can trace their origins back to the Near East's Fertile Crescent -- the belt of land stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf -- and from there, ex oriente lux: cats were transported around the world by humans. Long identified as the 'cradle of civilisation' for our 2-legged species, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have concluded that ancestral roads for all 600 million modern day pussy cats also lead back to the same locale.

Wheat, rye and barley had been domesticated in the Near East by 10,000 years ago. Undoubtedly, the granaries of early farming villages harboured mice and rats and other succulent feline food. Cats found good hunting there, and early settlers surely appreciated the little predators' help protecting their stocks.

Domesticated but never fully tamed

Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which explains a lot about the haughty independence of their modern descendants. Get down from your pedestal, people! The push for domestication probably came from the cat side, not the human side. And they've been rubbing it in ever since.

"Cats are not as domestic as you might think," says Leslie Lyons, veterinary genetics researcher and team leader at UC, Davis. "They are probably allowing you to live with them, not the other way around."

I couldn't agree more.

The Mother (or maybe Dad) of All House Cats

The earliest archaeological evidence of cat domestication dates back 9,500 years, when cats lived alongside humans in settlement sites on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus off the coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey).

The carefully interred remains of a 30-years old human and a cat were found buried together in close proximity (just 40 cm [16 inches] apart) with seashells, polished stones, and other decorative artifacts in a 9,500-year-old grave site in Cyprus. This is the only burial with such a high number of offerings for the whole early Neolithic in Cyprus. The 8-month old cat is entirely intact, either a part of the wealth accompanying the dead person (man or woman, we don't know) or an honoured friend.


After tracing the movement of cats and their gene pools through the ancient world, the UC Davis research team focused on measuring changes in genetic diversity as cats went on caravans and sailed to every part of the globe.

Unlike other domesticated species, there has been little effort to improve (?!?) on the cat for functional purposes, so most modern-day cats are quite genetically close to their ancestors. Breed development, such as it's been, has been driven more by preferences for certain aesthetic qualities like coat colour and colour patterns.

Of today's 50 recognized cat breeds, 16 are thought to be "natural breeds" that occurred in specific regions, while the remaining breeds were developed during the past 50 years.

Brave "above and beyond the call of duty"

The researchers collected samples of cheek cells from more than 11,000 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world. If you've ever given pills to your own moggie, you have to admire the team's dedication, poking behind the whiskers of more than 11,000 cats to swab inside their mouths.

These cats represented 17 populations of randomly bred cats from Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as 22 recognized breeds. Genetic markers , commonly used for DNA profiling, were used to determine the genetic relationships of cat breeds.

The twists and turns of feline travels have resulted in four broad groups -- with genetic recognition trophies going to cats from Europe, the Mediterranean basin, East Africa, and Asia. But when researchers examined the genes of what are thought to be distinct breeds, they were unable to find significant differences among many of them.

"An example would be Persian and exotic shorthairs," said Dr Lyons. "When you look at those two breeds, you can't distinguish them from one from another. Breeds look very different because of variations in a single gene, which is not enough to distinguish them genetically."

The Naming of Cats is a Difficult Matter

The most surprising discovery is that some breeds do not come from what was thought to be their geographical homeland.

The Japanese bobtail, for example, does not seem genetically similar to cats from Japan, indicating the breed may have originated elsewhere.

Maine coone and American shorthair -- two breeds that originated in the United States -- were genetically similar to the seven Western European breeds. This suggests that the cats were brought to the New World by European settlers and have not had time to develop significant genetic differentiation from their Western European ancestors.

Despite its name, the Persian, perhaps the oldest recognized pure breed, looks as though it actually arose in Western Europe and not Persia (modern Iran). “We would have expected Persians to be more Mediterranean, perhaps more like the Israeli or Turkish cats,” said Lyons, who explained that Persian cats instead “seem more western.” I don't think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be pleased with that.

But genes aren't everything.

It should still be possible to recognize a Persian cat (left), according to a blogger who has circulated this picture on the internet.*

Siamese, Burmese and Korats, on the contrary, all show ancestral connections with southeast Asian cats. Let's hear it for the Siamese! Dr Lyons does not try to explain why Siamese are such noisy talkers (though she has tried her hand at why cats purr). If she'd like to come to my house and swab the cheeks of my three Siamese (Myrtis, Tanit aka Roughneck, and Wawet), I'm sure they'll try to tell her their names, loud and insistently, until they think she understands.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

* The Persian cat picture was sent to me by my old friend Lys.

I am indebted to Rob Stein of the Washington Post for alerting me to this phenomenal UC Davis study, Scientists Use DNA to Unravel Cats' Lineage

14 March 2008

Today is 'Talk Like A Physicist Day'

Hurrah! I'm here to help you celebrate 'Talk Like A Physicist Day' and, because I'm a Classical Archaeologist, I've just put that in Greek (left).

Didn't you know that 14th March was special? Well, hasten over to the always fascinating site of Cosmic Variance to listen in as a gaggle of physicists happily babble on about their 'random samplings from a universe of ideas'. Or go to the ur-website itself to learn what it takes to talk like a physicist:

How many slices of bread can you toast from a bolt of lightning?

A bolt of lightning has enough energy to toast 100,000 slices of bread.

And visit them, too, for some really, really terrible but statistically valid puns ("What happens if you break the law of gravity?" "You get a suspended sentence."). Of course.

Now it's time to turn serious and give you the bad news.

Feminism is destroying the planet.

I'm afraid there's no doubt about it. This has nothing to do with International Women's Day which some of you may have misguidedly celebrated last week. Today, on a day dedicated to physics (and not girly stuff like the 8th of March), you have a right to expect 100% scientific rock-solid evidence.

This is the hypothesis:

Those pushy women have tipped the balance of the universal order, and thrown Nature’s intricate equilibrium out of whack.

Once stated, the truth of this obviously-correct hypothesis is blinding. I owe the nuts and bolts of this demonstration to Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance . I'm sure he won't mind my bringing his sober analysis to the attention of the history-savvy readers of Zenobia: Empress of the East.

The evidence is on this chart.

If this graph is Greek to you, let us explain.

The chart plots CO2 emissions into the atmosphere as a function of the ratio of girls to boys attending school in different countries (emphasis Sean's own).

The correlation is unmistakable: countries that educate women are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

There are only two possible conclusions. Either CO2 is causing all those girls to get an education (which is plain crazy), or feminism is destroying the planet.

Q.E. (as we Classical Archaeologists like to say) D.

Resistance Is Useless! (If < 1 ohm)

Like any good scientific theory, this new hypothesis explains a lot that was previously inexplicable. For example, as long ago as the 1950's, there was evidence from Sweden (via Christian H.) that should have pointed us in the right direction. Swedish scientists had already noticed a possible correlation between the number of storks and the national birthrate.

This is now easily explained: more female education –> more CO2 –> warmer weather –> fewer storks AND more female education –> lower birth rate.

Science doesn't lie.

12 March 2008

Zenobia, the Musical

The epic play by Mansour Rahbani finally on professional video.

If you missed the première in Dubai last April and didn't make it to Byblos in Lebanon to catch the show at the festival, you can still watch a video clip that gives an idea of the breathtaking scale of the musical starring Carole Samaha -- the popular Lebanese singer and actress, who plays Zenobia. By all accounts, Zenobia, the Musical was a spectacular and moving experience.

Horses, camels, water falls and burning fires, live on stage, with an all-singing, all-dancing cast of hundreds. Some hint of this is on the clip. You'll also see Rahbani (and his talented sons) talking about the vision behind the epic.

But I still have a bone to pick with this great composer and writer.

"The audience witnesses history re-enacted, as Zenobia, one of the greatest Arab leaders of all time, fights for freedom from imperial oppression.”

I hate to be a spoilsport.

But, as I've said before and undoubtedly will say again, Zenobia was not an Arab. So it's worse than nonsense when she sings these final words:
I am the first cry of freedom,
the first cry from an Arabian land.
I am to give my blood for freedom.
Zenobia lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria. There's absolutely no reason to think that she was of Arab blood; on the contrary, everything we know about her points to the local Aramaic-speaking aristocracy mingled with Macedonian-Greek ancestry. In the Middle East, I don't think it mere pedantry to criticize a play for rewriting history.

Especially since the play is pitched as based on fact. And has been taken as such by those who've seen it.

"History is a mirror of the future," says Oussama Rahbani (one of Mansour's sons). "If you don't have a history, you don't have a future."

Now, who can argue with that?

And I love the music.

My thanks to Aayko Eyma for alerting me to Rahbani's new video clip. There are also more amateur videos at YouTube (search on Zenobia).

08 March 2008

Zenobia is Back in America!

Zenobia in Chains, a monumental 7-foot marble statue, long assumed to be lost or destroyed, will go on public display for the first time in 123 years at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.

The Huntington paid 192,500 British pounds -- roughly $385,000 -- for the sculpture by the American artist Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908). Considered Hosmer's masterpiece, the statue resurfaced at Sotheby's in London in November after being rediscovered in a private collection more than a century after it had been last seen in public.

In contrast to typical mid-19th century classical sculptures of captive women - naked, in shackles, and with downcast eyes (as, for example, Hiram Powers' titillating Greek Slave) - Zenobia is "dignified, fully dressed and holding the chains in her hands, as if she has ownership over her captivity."

It was a bold statement for any woman artist of the time to make. While many Neoclassical artists depicted mythological figures, Hosmer was chiefly drawn to female characters whose stories could be viewed as allegories for her strongly held feminist beliefs:

"I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another."
Zenobia, for example, can easily be read in relation to the condition of 19th-century women, who were placed on a pedestal but simultaneously enslaved by harsh financial constraints that bound them to men.

When she produced the towering Zenobia in 1859, the work was met with disbelief that a woman created it. “Zenobia is one of the most famous — and controversial — objects produced during the ‘golden age’ of American classical sculpture," says John Murdoch, Director of the Huntington Art Collections. "Some critics at the time questioned whether a work of such sublime expression, on such a scale, and requiring such power of hand and arm in the carving could have been done by a woman."

But what a woman!

The official version

Born in Watertown, Mass. in 1830, Hosmer studied anatomy at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis and then travelled to Rome in 1852 to study with British sculptor John Gibson, a leading exponent of the neoclassical style (gossips later claimed that Gibson actually did Hosmer's work -- until she filed successful libel suits, which shut them up). She lived in Rome until a few years before her death. There she was associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thorwaldsen, Flaxman, Thackeray, George Eliot, George Sand, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Hosmer slipped unobserved into a convent one night, wearing Robert Browning's trousers). After returning to America as a celebrated artist, Hosmer devoted a large part of her time trying to invent a perpetual motion machine and an artificial marble. She died at Watertown on the 21st of February 1908.

The real low-down

Hosmer never had any patience for the strict rules of decorum that regulated behaviour among young ladies in the polite circles of her day.
Here was a woman who , at the very outset of her life, refused to have her feet cramped by the little Chinese shoes which society places on us all and then misnames our feeble tottering, feminine grace.*
Instead, she was driven to work long hours in the studio, perfecting her art. While still living in Boston, her early sculpture caught the eye of Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous American actresses of her day. Cushman -- whose performances impressed such luminaries as Walt Whitman ("the most intense acting ever felt on the Parks [Theatre] boards") -- was particularly admired for playing men's parts, a popular practice in the nineteenth-century theatre. Male attire, including tight breeches, displayed more of the woman's body to the audience than did the flowing gowns of female costumes; hence, the so-called 'breeches parts' appealed to male spectators -- and women, too. Throughout her career, Cushman received many fan letters from women who had been moved by the sight of the actress when she was playing a man making love to a woman.

Hosmer was moved, literally.

Cushman was preparing to retire from the stage and live in Rome. She took young Hosmer with her. The artist entered Cushman's inner circle, one of her household of 'jolly bachelor women'. At the time, Cushman was living with Matilda Hays, a novelist, journalist, and translator of the works of George Sand. There was no doubt about their relationship: Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted, "I understand that [Cushman] and Miss Hays have made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other -- they live together, dress alike, . . . it is a female marriage."

Hosmer quickly became a key figure in the Anglo-American flock of artistic migrants in Rome. A creative, intellectually exciting world further spiced by parties, theatricals, and balls. But all was not bliss in the 'jolly' household. Not with so many emancipated women running about. In 1854, Matilda Hays left Cushman for Harriet Hosmer. It didn't last (Hays went back to Cushman until a final bust up in 1857). Hosmer now had an intense relationship with the beautiful and wealthy Louisa Ashburton, a widowed Scottish noblewoman. This did last. The two shared finances and wrote intimate letters in which Hosmer called herself both "hubbie" and "wedded wife". In many letters, she spoke of her devotion and also jealousy at the thought of being replaced by another woman.

In 1858, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife visited Hosmer at her studio in Rome, and the writer gave a telling description of her: “She had on a male shirt, collar, and cravat…. She was indeed very queer….”

I think we can take that as read.

After the Civil War, the shift in American taste away from neoclassical art made it more difficult for Hosmer to make a living as a sculptor. That may have been why she was dabbling with perpetual motion machines. By the time she died in 1908 at least one obituary expressed surprise that she was still alive. She left behind $ 2,500 in debts.

Make it up to her, Huntington!

Will not -- shall not -- every American look with pride -- an honest, noble pride -- on this marble effigy of Zenobia, because it is the ideal, the production, of an American, and that American a woman.**

* Quoted from the American writer Lydia Maria Child, one of Hosmer's devoted friends.

** Anonymous author, The Saturday Evening Gazette, March 26, 1865, Harriet Hosmer Papers, Watertown Public Library, Watertown, MA.

The photograph of Harriet Hosmer on ladder with her sculpture of Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), c.1860, is from the Bridgeman Art Library.

01 March 2008

Was Philip the Arab a Secret Christian?

And a very well hidden convert?

There can scarcely be any doubt that the emperor Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus, A.D. 244), his wife Otacilia Severa, and his son Philip the younger were Christians, and friends of Saint Hippolytus.

This from a University of Chicago website -- although admittedly quoting (in the very fine print) from a book published in 1892!

Still, you can read such claims all over the Internet nowadays. And it is repeated in books published as recently as 2000, as this breathtaking statement by W. Ball* in Rome in the East, that
"...it was Philip, not Constantine, who was Rome's first Christian emperor ... He would have kept quiet about it and been even more scrupulous to follow Roman public ceremonial to the letter. But the precedent was nonetheless made, and the importance of Philip's conversion as a precedent for Constantine cannot be overestimated."
Indeed, it would be hard to underestimate such revisionism, but is there any truth to it? How did such a story get started?

We're in the third century AD so, of course, everything is murky. And tortuous.

But one thing is clear: it's a tale told entirely on the Christian side. And even among the faithful, no hint of Philip's alleged Christianity appears until about 75 years later when Bishop Eusebius writes in his Ecclesiastical History (a little before 326 AD):

Gordian had been Roman emperor for six years when Philip, with his son Philip, succeeded him. It is reported that he, being a Christian desired, on the day of the last paschal vigil, to share with the multitude in the prayers of the Church,but that he was not permitted to enter, by him who then presided, until he had made confession and had numbered himself among those who were reckoned as transgressors and who occupied the place of penance. For if he had not done this, he would never have been received by him, on account of the many crimes which he had committed. It is said that he obeyed readily, manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God.
That sounds clear enough. But, remember, nothing is so straightforward in the third century AD. It's odd, first of all, that Eusebius does not name the bishop who had so boldly barred an Emperor from attending Easter services. He was usually a great collector of names. It was left to St John Chrysostom, (c. 347-407) to tell us it was St Babylas, 12th bishop of Antioch -- although Chrysostom, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, does not actually name the emperor so central to his story.** Eusebius, of course, did know that Babylas was bishop of Antioch at this time. And knows that he was martyred in the persecution mounted by Philip's successor, Decius. What he doesn't do is put the two stories together. Nor does he actually say that this remarkable event happened at Antioch.

Perhaps this was an unaccustomed slip on his part. In this section of his book, after all, he's really writing about Origen, the most famous Christian teacher of the time. [You may remember that Origen had come to visit Julia Mamaea, our fourth and last Uppity Woman, when that Empress was in Antioch in 232/33.]

Eusebius twice interrupts his long life of Origen to say something about Philip, first the story of the Easter vigil and now that he's managed to collect about a hundred of Origen's letters, among which: "There is extant also an epistle of his to the Emperor Philip, and another to Severa his wife....". Out of this grist was milled his wife's Christianity and, by a natural extention, their son's.

Eusebius, as he himself says, heard about Philip being barred from church as an oral tradition (my bold type in the translation above). In other words, 'They say so' -- which is not a very strong authority. Much later, St Jerome (c. 340/2-420) states explicitly that Philip was the first Christian emperor (qui primus de regibus Romanis christianus fuit), and this becames the common tradition in the Church. So a story taken on trust by Eusebius is turned by Jerome into fact.

What the pagans said

Not a single pagan source supports this tradition. If there had been even a hint of a rumour circulating in Rome, you can bet your last denarius that Roman writers would have latched on to it. Philip was a wily Oriental, after all -- they saw him as indecisive, treacherous, and weak. If, for example, Philip had refused to offer sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitol when he arrived in Rome in 244 (as did Constantine on his triumphal entry in 315), it surely would have been noticed. Similarly, if he had truly been chums with St. Hippolytus, as claimed at the top of this post, it would have met with public surprise. Not least, because the martyred anti-pope was already dead -- torn apart by two horses -- by the time Philip became emperor. ***

But, no. On the contrary. We know that he celebrated the millennium games in Rome with pagan rites and pagan pomp. He appears indistinguishable from others emperors in his use of pagan symbols and titles. As a supposed crypto-Christian, he made no improvements in the legal status of Christians or their religion.

And what must be the knock-out blow: he gave divine honours to his own father. What kind of Christian would have deified his own Dad -- who hadn't even been an emperor? Certainly, an unlikely move for someone converted to Christ.

What May Have Happened

In 249, his usurper and successor, the emperor Decius issued an edict requiring all the inhabitants of the Empire to sacrifice to the gods. This decree inaugurated the first empire-wide persecution of Christians. Previously, persecutions had always been local affairs determined by local conditions (like the riots and repression in Alexandria in 248, when a pagan prophet stirred up a pogrom against the local Christians). Thereafter, persecutions were instigated by emperors and took place on an imperial scale. A believer could no longer find safety by sailing from one province to another. There was no such escape from the centrally-organized persecutions of Decius (249-250), Valerian (257-260), or Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximinus (303-313). And so the books of the martyrs were filled up.

No wonder the Christians of Eusebius' time looked back to Philip's reign as 'the good old days'.

If he didn't hurt them -- and he didn't -- he must have been on their side. Sympathetic = sympathizer. From there it's but a short step to believing that he was secretly one of them.

Nostalgia is exactly what it used to be.

* Yes, that's the same Ball who sees Philip as an early avatar of the Arab conquest of the Near East. Scroll down to see how dubious that statement is, too. Another champion of the Philip's Arab and Christian claims is I. Shahîd in Rome and Arabs, 1984, who rests his case almost entirely on the later story of Eusebius.

** To add to the confusion, the largely medieval Acts of the Martyrs says that the emperor was Numerianus (who ruled 283-284 AD).

*** Hippolytus had been banished by Severus Alexander to the unhealthy island of Sardinia (about 235) and suffered martyrdom no later than 240, being torn to pieces by horses. The authenticity of this account may be gravely doubted on the ground that this form of punishment was not practised by the Romans. Not to mention that his Greek namesake, Hippolytus (in Euripides) was torn to bits by his horses: entangled in the reins dragged along ...his poor head dashed against the rocks, his flesh all torn....

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